New Zealand: The employment relationship in the aftermath of the quake

As Christchurch moves from the rescue and recovery phase, many businesses and employees will need to know what is going to happen in their workplace.  This guide has been prepared to assist employers in the wake of the 22 February earthquake.  It is necessarily brief and general, and is not a substitute for specific legal advice about your situation.

Key messages

Put staff safety and welfare first.

Take time before making any decisions, particularly if they affect staff safety or long term employment.

Communicate with staff, especially before making any key decisions.

Be compassionate, understanding, flexible and pragmatic. 

Don't rush back - prioritise safety

Employers are required to do all they can to provide a safe workplace.  

If your business can operate, you must assess risks to employees, contractors, visitors and people around the workplace before you allow workers back.  Put safety first.  Where there are hazards, they have to be eliminated, minimised or isolated.  Keep assessing whether it is safe to work.

Emphasise to staff that they have an obligation to keep themselves safe, and that they need to be extra vigilant and aware of any hazards over this time.  Be clear that they shouldn't do anything to risk the safety of themselves or others, even out of a desire to help. 

Things to think about

  • Are buildings structurally stable? 
  • Is basic sanitation (running water/toilets) available?
  • Are there any unusual risks (is machinery unstable?  Have there been any spills or contamination?  Are there live electrical cables or gas leaks?)
  • Do you need specialist assessments or assistance, or additional safety equipment to deal with these risks?
  • Are emergency exits/stairways still useable?
  • Do you have a plan to deal with aftershocks?
  • Are staff safe and able to work? (Most will be suffering trauma and loss to one degree or another).
  • Be aware of and comply with any instructions or advice from local authorities.

Stay in touch - keep your employees informed

Communicate proactively.  As your situation becomes clearer, let staff and any unions know:

  • what is (and isn't) expected of them
  • how your business has been affected, and what losses will be covered by business continuance insurance
  • what support, if any, you can offer
  • what support the business (or other staff) may need, and
  • who employees can contact if they need help/support (can you provide counselling or any other assistance?).

What do your agreements say?

You should check your employment agreements and any relevant policies.  Most employment contracts won't cover this type of situation, but some will. 

Do I have to keep paying employees?

Generally, yes.  By law employers need to pay employees who are ready and willing to work, even if no work is available.  However, there are some exceptions and qualifications to this rule:

  • some employment agreements might give employers the power to suspend employees without pay (most agreements won't).  We suggest employers take advice before using this type of power
  • some employment agreements allow employers to reduce hours of work, or only require payment for work actually completed (subject to minimum wage legislation), and
  • there is no obligation to provide casual employees with work or pay beyond any existing roster or pre-arranged work.  (Be careful though, often many employees who are regarded as "casuals" aren't actually casuals by law).

That said, the overriding need here is to be understanding, compassionate and flexible.  Wherever possible, solutions should be discussed and agreed, not imposed.

Do I have to keep paying my employees if they can't or won't come to work?

We encourage you to talk to employees and try to come to an agreement.  Can the employee work from home?  Can he or she make up time at a later point?  If the employee wants significant time off, can you agree on a mixture of unpaid and paid special leave?  Can the employee take annual leave?

Normal entitlements apply.  Employees are entitled to take sick leave if they, their partner or a dependent is sick or injured.  Employees receive a minimum of 5 days sick leave each year, and can accrue sick leave from year to year up to a maximum of 20 days. 

Employees are also entitled to up to 3 days bereavement leave when a relative dies.

I can't pay forever - are there temporary options to give me breathing space?

Agreed unpaid leave

Employers and employees can agree on unpaid leave.  These agreements should be recorded in writing (an email exchange or handwritten note, preferably signed, is fine).

The Department of Labour website sets out the effect of unpaid leave longer than a week on holiday accruals.

Temporary work with other employers

Can you arrange temporary work for some of your staff with other firms while you get your business operational?  In some cases (such as essential services) other companies may have an immediate need for well trained employees.

The simplest way to achieve this will usually be to give your staff unpaid leave so that the other employer can engage them directly.

Annual leave

If the work closure is to be lengthy, employers can direct employees (without their agreement) to take leave without pay.  However:

  • the employer must first try and reach agreement
  • staff must be given 14 days notice of any direction
  • employers can only direct staff to take leave to which they are "entitled" (as distinct from leave which has been accrued),1  and
  • employers must make sure staff have enough leave so they can take two weeks leave in one block at some point during the year (usually this is at Christmas). 

Agreed reductions in remuneration or hours of work

Both parties can agree to temporarily reduce hours of work (or pay, where work is not available).  In normal circumstances this wouldn't happen, but if there is no or reduced work, it might be the best way for employers to maintain their workforce.

Here are some things to think about. 

  • Any reduction in wages or minimum hours requires genuine and clear agreement from the employee. 
  • The agreement should be recorded in writing.  A letter (which both parties sign) is normally fine. 
  • Both parties should take advice (to save money, employers might want to write up a draft letter themselves, which they can take to their usual adviser). 
  • If employees are engaged on a collective agreement, the letter will normally be signed by the union, and subject to the variation procedures in the agreement.
  • When drafting the letter, look at the employment agreement.  What are you actually agreeing to change?  Do you need to change anything else?
  • That letter of agreement should:
    •   be clear
    • state how long the change will apply for, and what happens at the end (presumably you will revert to the hours/pay that existed immediately before the letter), and
    • state that the employee has been given a reasonable time to take legal advice about the change (generally two or three days, but it may need to be longer in these circumstances).

What help can we expect from the government?  

A government announcement on wage subsidies is expected shortly.  We suggest businesses wait until this assistance is announced and understood before taking any significant steps. 

For further information, please contact the lawyers featured.

In preparing this advice we have drawn on the Department of Labour website, which we recommend to you as a source of further information (particularly around health and safety).


1. What is "entitled" leave?  Staff only become "entitled" to leave (4 weeks) after 12 months service.  For example, someone who has worked for a year and a half without taking any holidays will have four weeks of "entitled" leave and two weeks of accrued leave. 

The information in this article is for informative purposes only and should not be relied on as legal advice. Please contact Chapman Tripp for advice tailored to your situation.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions